Six months after food inspectors raided their on-farm meat shop and seized their award-winning prosciutto, a Pilot Mound couple has learned all charges against them have been dropped.
Clint and Pam Cavers, whose old-world-style sausage earned top honours at the Great Manitoba Food Fight last year, have also been given the green light to go back into production.
“We’ve done a lot around here to try and work with MAFRD to make this come out well for everybody,” said a relieved Clinton Cavers last week. “We’re probably now within a month from being able to start producing prosciutto again.”
Upgrades to their facility, including new equipment and other revisions to comply with food safety regulations have been approved in writing by two inspectors from Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Development who visited their meat shop in January, he said. That leaves them confident they won’t face a similar problem in the future.
“We got caught in this trap before, where everybody would say, ‘just do this, and then we’ll come and tell you if it’s OK,’” he said. “Now (they can’t) come and tell us we need to spend another $10,000 on something else they didn’t think of.”
The Cavers say they will have spent considerably more than that by the time the meat shop’s renovations are done, but the price tag isn’t the $100,000 they initially anticipated last fall when the raid on their farm thrust them into a media spotlight.
Their $10,000 prize for winning the Great Manitoba Food Fight, sponsored by the same provincial department that later stopped them from making prosciutto, was put towards hiring Food Development Centre consultants to teach them how to document Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs), said Pam Cavers.
It’s going to be onerous to keep on top of it all, she said. “We’re working on it. They’re not easy. And I am a still little (company) and I need to make a living,” she said.
The Cavers’ predicament caused a simmering debate over how food regulations are implemented in Manitoba to boil over, as proponents of locally produced and processed food rose to their defence.
Although the province passed a new food safety act five years ago, MAFRD continues to hold public consultations on regulations. It could be 2015 before the act is proclaimed.
“Regulations still need to be consulted on publicly and then translated,” said MAFRD spokesman Dr. Glen Duizer.
“There’s a fair number of regulations involved. Once those are done we can move forward but it certainly takes time to get that done.”
University of Manitoba student Colin Anderson, spokesman for a loosely organized group of small processors, farmers and university students who coalesced in support of the Cavers, said small-scale producers are discouraged or pushed underground by the complexities of meeting modern food safety regulations.
His group circulated its criticisms widely through social media and letters to newspapers.
“A lot of the regulation, though not intended to do this, disadvantages smaller processors,” he said in an interview. “It has worked to contain innovation and limit innovation.”
But a spokesman for the Manitoba Food Processors Association (MFPA), whose 270 membership is mostly small companies of one to five employees, is reaching out to food processors who find themselves in similar situations.
Executive director Dave Shambrock said it is the association’s mandate to represent the needs and interests of food processors in Manitoba, and it is looking for ways to specifically help business navigate the regulatory landscape.
“It’s incredibly challenging for any processor, regardless of size, to be on top of this, but especially the medium- and small-size companies and you really don’t have any choice, if you want to be in the business of selling food,” said Shambrock.
“A lot of the information sites are just confusing to work through. And there are so many different food safety mechanisms and systems that are being developed,” he said.
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The MFPA is applying through Growing Forward 2 for funding to develop a program that would make coaches or resource people available to those smaller-scale businesses that have neither the time, money or other resources to devote to regulatory matters, he said.
“We’re looking at having this network of consultants that we co-ordinate and make available to individuals as needed,” he said. “It would essentially assign coaches or resource people to smaller-scale businesses that need the help to investigate, interpret and take action on a regulatory framework appropriate to their size.”
The need for help is only bound to grow, Shambrock added. Presently, food makers operate at one of three levels, from using a basic food safety program to using Good Manufacturing Practices, to the higher level HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point) program which can cost anywhere from $25,000 to $50,000 to implement.
Shambrock says it is likely only a matter of time before HACCP is required for more processing activities and products.
“To my way of thinking it’s not going to be long before anyone selling food commercially, especially if it’s a higher-risk product, is going to have to have some kind of HACCP-based regime in place,” he said.
That’s what’s driving small businesses underground, according to David Neufeld, an organic greenhouse grower at Boissevain who also belongs to the coalition calling for clearer, simpler “scale-appropriate” food regulations.
Neufeld said as regulation becomes more expensive and complicated there will be less, not more small-scale processing, and that runs counter to all the widely documented business trends showing demand for closer-to-home produced foods consumers seek.
Prohibitive regulation is sending a message to small-scale processors that they’re “a threat to somebody,” he said.
“What we want is something that assists the on-farm cottage industries to thrive,” he said. “All we’re asking for is fair amount of time and resources put toward the smaller-scale food culture or the local food culture and the artisanal food culture in Manitoba,” he said.
“It isn’t good for the economy if people aren’t encouraged to develop their products and bring them to market,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Cavers say they just want to put what happened behind them and focus on making a good value-added meat product.
“It feels like we kind of wasted six months of time with wrangling back and forth,” said Clinton Cavers. “This is kind of a bureaucratic nightmare, without having extra staff hired just to navigate it for you.
“But I think it’s highlighted a problem that needs to be addressed.”